Sermon, January 22, 2017
So...last Sunday we had an ice storm. And I had known about it since Wednesday…. I wondered whether how quickly the roads would be cleared, if church would be cancelled, whether I should bother prepping the Israel class, whether it would be safe for people to walk. It wasn’t until I pulled into my driveway Sunday afternoon, put the car in park to open the garage, and then tried to drive into the garage that I wondered whether I should have bought salt or sand myself. See… my car wouldn’t go forward because it was sitting on a quarter inch of ice in my driveway.
Oops. New homeowner blind-spot, I guess. It took a crisis for me to figure it out.
In Chicago, I worked with a Bishop named Ernest Owens around health strategies for congregations. His partnership was powerful because he used his personal story; a few years ago he was diagnosed with high blood pressure and his doctor prescribed medication. But Bishop didn’t like the idea of reliance on drugs, and was scared about letting it get further out of control. So, he took action. He cut his diet – starting eating more fruits and vegetables, cut out soda, starting drinking more water. He also started walking 5 miles every day.
3 months later, during his follow up appointment with his doctor, his blood pressure was completely out of the danger zone. His doctor told him, forget the prescription. You’ve got it under control.
Don’t we wish all health wake-up calls were that simple? Sometimes crises or wake up calls are small events that show you clearly what you’ve been ignoring, and help give you a kick in the pants to spring into action.
Sometimes they are not quite so rosy. Sometimes the wake up call is a shock, and the crisis is a crisis of conscience. The book of Isaiah that we’ve been reading for several weeks is a community going through a crisis of conscience. They know the Northern Kingdom of Israel has been conquered and destroyed by the Assyrian Empire, and now they are in the Southern Kingdom, in Jerusalem, wondering how long it will be until the Assyrians reach their beloved city. They are wondering what they can do to get right with Yahweh, get right with God and be back in God’s favor. They are wondering where they went wrong.
Sometimes our wake up call is a collective wake up call.
Last week was the holiday where we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the cause that claimed his life, civil rights for all people. The civil rights era was one of these collective crises of conscience. The actions of the people working with King – the marchers, the would-be voters, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee - forced the resistance to black people into the open, and gave everyone across the country a clear view.
I remember the scene in the movie Selma that showed it clearly – how many here saw Selma? King and his team were in disagreement about how to bring attention to a woman who was turned away from registering to vote, until a young man was killed by police. With the community about to boil over, they decide to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge despite the obvious and possibly violent resistance they will face. As the marchers approach the bridge, state troopers order the marchers to turn back. The marchers refuse, and the troopers put on gas masks and attack with clubs, horses, tear gas, and beat many of the marchers. John Lewis was hit in the head and suffered a fractured skull. The entire thing was being televised, and ABC interrupted it’s broadcast of the Nuremburg trial to show the live footage.
Millions of people across the country were shocked by sight of the violence. Thousands of people felt a crisis of conscience. This moment was a wake up call for the country. When faced with the crisis, people realized that something was not right… in fact, a few hundred felt it so deeply that they answer King’s call to go to Selma and join with the marchers.
Our Gospel today begins with the arrest of John the Baptist, and Jesus withdrawing to Galilee to begin his ministry. This is one of the things all the gospels agree on – that Jesus didn’t begin his ministry until John was in Herod’s custody.
It seems that this moment was a wake up call for Jesus. Perhaps Jesus knew his gifts, knew he had the power of healing, knew God’s vision for the world that would be enacted through him. But perhaps he didn’t know how to get started. Perhaps he was feeling indecisive. Perhaps he didn’t know where to jump in, when to speak, what to say. Perhaps he was waiting for an opening, or the right time to make his mark. But the arrest of John the Baptist seemed to spur Jesus to action, to begin his ministry and teaching in the region of the Galilee. Later in Matthew’s gospel we learn that John was arrested for a petty offense – criticizing Herod’s marriage with his brother’s wife – that was hardly punishable by death. Perhaps this great abuse of Herod’s power was a crisis that showed Jesus he couldn’t wait any longer. The world was not right. The injustice was too great. Jesus would take John’s place in Galilee.
In organizing, we often discover these moments. I’ve told you about one to one meetings where an organizer is probing someone to reveal their values, and how they came to have them. Often, there is a moment where injustice was crystallized in their mind – a moment when they saw their father or mother mistreated, or were themselves exploited, or a stranger powerless and abused for the wrong reasons - just like when the violence in Selma was broadcast into living rooms across America. And in that moment, they know that something is not right. And it changes their perspective for the rest of their lives.
(as we talked about in our Israel class, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, had one such moment…. Where he couldn’t believe what he saw, and it changed the course of history.
A crisis WAKES YOU UP, and SPURS YOU TO ACTION!! Maybe it’s action that is long overude, or maybe it’s action that you never thought you’d take. Maybe it’s action that changes the course of your life, or maybe it’s action that changes the course of history.
After the arrest of John, Matthew’s Gospel then tells us, from that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." ‘Kingdom’ of Heaven. In Greek, this word is Basileia, and is commonly translated as God’s empire, rule, or reign. But technically, the closest definition is ‘commonwealth,’ which denotes the community as much as the ruler. It always had to do with a ruler, but also had to do with relationships and life under that ruler. My favorite theologian Catherine Keller likes to use a different word to describe the kingdom of heaven. Instead of the Kingdom of Heaven, she uses ‘togetherhood.’
Jesus walked throughout the region of the Galilee following the arrest of John. Something was obviously wrong with their current kingdom – their togetherhood was all out of whack. Jesus began letting people know that God’s Commonwealth, God’s ‘togetherhood’ has drawn near to them. And, Jesus says, you can be a part of it. Indeed, he called disciples to work on it.
What kind of wake-up calls have you had in your life? What are the moments in your history that have spurred you to action? What are those in the life of First Congregational UCC? What crisis moments will we face in our future? Where will we be faced with situations where our togetherhood is not quite right – and what will we do about it?
On Friday, we inaugurated a new President, one who many people voted for because they felt abused or neglected by the system or the previous administration. And then Saturday, around 300,000 people descended onto DC (and over 250,000 marched in my hometown of Chicago) for a Women’s March. In Boston, my political sister and my non-political sister drove together to DC to take part. My best friend’s 65-year-old mom marched in Chicago for the first time in her life. I don’t know what their wake up call was. But obviously, something is wrong with our ‘togetherhood’.
We all have our moments when we feel things are right. The important thing is to pause, recognize them, reflect and bring it up to your consciousness. Compare it to our values, our God-center that is deep down in our gut. Process it. Share it, if needed. Because it is by sharing it that we formulate our togetherhood.
But the good news is, as Jesus says, God is near and wants to help us rebuild it – together.